Freedom of the Press
Problems encountered by journalists during coverage of the Occupy movement protests in various American cities provoked complaints of police mistreatment and triggered a debate over the accreditation of reporters from nontraditional media. At the same time, the federal judiciary showed signs of resisting demands by the federal government for reporters’ notes and the names of sources in cases involving leaks of classified information by government employees.
The United States has one of the world’s strongest systems of legal protection for freedom of the press. The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution provides the core guarantee of press freedom and freedom of speech. While those rights have come under pressure at various times in the country’s history, the independent court system has repeatedly issued rulings that protect and expand the right of journalists to be free of state control. The courts have also given the press broad protection from libel and defamation suits that involve commentary on public figures, though libel remains a criminal offense in a number of states.
Some 39 states have shield laws that give journalists limited protection from revealing sources or other information in the course of their work. The federal government, however, has no such protection, and an effort to adopt a shield law has stalled in Congress. Over the past decade or so, a series of controversies has emerged over efforts by federal prosecutors to obtain testimony from journalists in high-profile cases, including some in which government workers have been charged with leaking information to the media or lobbyists. Until recently, judges have tended to side with prosecutors and have on occasion held journalists in contempt of court for refusing to identify sources. While many of the cases were initiated by the Justice Department under President George W. Bush, the administration of President Barack Obama has proved equally as zealous in pursuing government secrecy cases and in issuing demands for information from reporters. The best-known current case involves James Risen, a prize-winning New York Times reporter and author of several books on national security themes. The Justice Department has sought to compel Risen to testify about information he may have received from Jeffrey Sterling, a former CIA employee, in the course of researching a book about American efforts to disrupt Iran’s nuclear program. While the Justice Department continues to seek to compel Risen to testify, their efforts have been restricted by a federal court decision that reporters are not to be called before grand juries if the government has not previously exhausted other means to gather information or if enough material for indictment has already been obtained. Also among those under investigation is Bradley Manning, the Army private who is alleged to have provided hundreds of thousands of classified documents to the WikiLeaks organization and who is being held in a military detention facility.
The United States adopted the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in 1966. While the administration of President George W. Bush had a somewhat restrictive attitude toward the release of classified documents, the Obama administration announced a more expansive interpretation of the law in 2009, when Attorney General Eric Holder declared that records should be released to the public unless doing so would violate another law or cause foreseeable harm to protected interests, including personal privacy and national security. Critics have complained that approximately half of federal government agencies have yet to comply with Obama’s executive order and that fulfillment of FOIA requests can take months or even years. In September 2011, the U.S. issued a 26-point plan comprised of “transparency commitments” as part of their National Action Plan for cooperation in the Open Government Partnership. Included in this plan was a commitment to ameliorating the inefficiencies in FOIA processing and administration. Less positively, in June 2011, Florida Governor Rick Scott enacted a new law that prohibited the release of any photos, videos, or recordings related to a murder case. Press freedom groups and national journalists urged the Scott administration to repeal the law as they believed it severely restricted the public’s right to information and the media’s investigative abilities.
Controversy has emerged in recent years over cases involving bloggers and other new media practitioners who claim the status, protections, and rights of journalists. Police departments in New York City and elsewhere denied formal journalist status to some new media practitioners who applied for accreditation to cover the Occupy protests. In a controversial case, a federal judge ruled that a Montana blogger was not acting as a journalist when she issued polemical attacks online directed at an Oregon attorney. The blogger had suffered a fine of $2.5 million in a defamation judgment.
Media coverage of political affairs is aggressive and increasingly partisan. The press itself is frequently a source of controversy, with conservatives and liberals alike accusing the media of bias. The appearance of enhanced polarization is driven to some degree by the growing influence of all-news cable television channels and blogs, many of which are aggressively partisan. The growing popularity of the Fox television network, which has an overtly conservative orientation, has also played an important role in media polarization, as have talk radio shows, whose hosts are primarily conservative. Nonetheless, most U.S. newspapers make a serious effort to keep a wall of separation between news reporting, commentary, and editorials. Ironically, the trend toward fewer family-owned newspapers and more newspapers under corporate control has contributed to a less partisan, if blander, editorial tone.
There are generally few physical attacks on journalists. In 2011, however, some journalists covering the Occupy protests were injured in the scrum of clashes between protesters and police. In most cases, police were responsible for the injuries, although on occasion Occupy partisans initiated attacks. Cameraman Roy Isen of Fox 5 was pepper-sprayed while his colleague, reporter Dick Brennan, was struck by a police baton during the scuffle that occurred between police and protesters on October 5 in New York City. In November, KGO cameraman Randy Davis was assaulted by about a dozen men at the Occupy Oakland protests. According to the Committee to Protect Journalist (CPJ), Davis was trying to cover the aftermath of a shooting that had occurred at one of the protest sites, and was repeatedly punched in the head by protesters whom were frustrated with the media presence there. Additionally, bloggers and other nontraditional journalists seeking to cover the Occupy encampments complained about being denied credentials by the authorities in several cities.
In June 2011, the prolonged investigation into the death of Oakland-based journalist Chauncey Bailey finally came to a close when a jury found two men guilty of Bailey’s 2007 murder. Bailey was a local reporter and editor for the Oakland Post group of newspapers, and had been working on an investigative story regarding the finances of a local bakery when gunned down by a masked man. Bailey’s colleagues formed a group, known as the Chauncey Bailey Project, to independently investigate his murder and found that the police had knowledge of evidence pertinent to the case and failed to disclose it to the public. Journalist advocacy groups and news organizations harshly criticized the police investigation for its extreme lack of transparency and breach of freedom of information rights.
The media in the United States are overwhelmingly under private ownership. Nevertheless, National Public Radio (NPR) and television’s Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), which are funded by a combination of government allocations and private contributions, enjoy substantial audiences. Public broadcasting is periodically criticized by Republican legislators for an alleged liberal bias, and there have been efforts to eliminate or greatly reduce government funding for NPR and PBS. Meanwhile, the internationally popular satellite television network Al-Jazeera English (AJE), based in Qatar, has found a growing number of cable television companies willing to offer the channel to U.S. viewers. By law, radio and television airwaves are considered public property and are leased to private stations, which determine content. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is charged with administering licenses and reviewing content to ensure that it complies with federal limits on indecent or offensive material. On several occasions, the FCC has issued fines against radio and television outlets for what the commission deemed to be acts of indecency.
Traditional media, including print and broadcast outlets, have suffered financially from the increasing popularity of the internet as a news medium. The newspaper industry in the United States is undergoing a period of profound decline and readjustment. There are an estimated 1,400 daily newspapers geared primarily toward local readerships, but even the largest and most prestigious papers have faced falling circulations and advertising revenues and been forced to cut staff over the past decade. This trend has particularly affected outlets’ ability to conduct investigative reporting and cover foreign news.
Media ownership concentration is an ongoing concern in the United States. The problem has intensified in recent years following the purchase of media entities by large corporations with no previous experience in journalism. Most recently, concern has been voiced about the purchase of large media entities by giant cable television companies. In 2011, the FCC approved the acquisition of NBC Universal by Comcast. Among the terms of approval, the FCC stipulated that Comcast could not favor content generated by media entities it owns over other companies on cable sites that it owns. The FCC regularly considers policies that would ease restrictions on a single corporation’s ownership of both television stations and newspapers in a single local market, and in recent years the trend in FCC rulings has been toward a loosening of such restrictions.
The decline in coverage offered by traditional media has been only partly offset by the growth of cable television and internet journalism. In 2010, for the first time, Americans who identified their primary source of news as the internet outnumbered those who relied most on newspapers. Approximately 78 percent of Americans used the internet in 2011. The number and influence of websites and blogs have grown rapidly over the past decade, and more recently, social-media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook have gained prominence as a means of testing and mobilizing public opinion on political and policy issues. Although the government does not restrict political or social engagement over the internet, there is still a strong push to pass legislation regarding certain online activities and content. Some of these concerns include promulgation of child abuse images, exposure of indecent content to minors, dissemination of confidential information, and online gambling.